‘It’s an art’: Students converge on fairgrounds for first regional career, technical education competition

Published 12:10 am Sunday, February 27, 2022

SALISBURY — Four years ago, masonry and carpentry piqued the interest of South Rowan High School senior Kevin Rodriguez.

A few cutting boards, coasters and coffee tables later, Rodriguez is now working to turn that interest into full-time career.

Currently dual-enrolled in Rowan-Cabarrus Community College for construction management, Rodriguez can obtain a certification to practice masonry professionally within a year’s time. As a freshman, he enrolled in masonry courses and discovered his passion for woodworking when he stopped by the shop.

Rodriguez was one of more than 40 students from Rowan-Salisbury Schools who gathered at the Rowan County fairgrounds Saturday for the first North Carolina Career and Technical Education Southwest Regional event in preparation for the North Carolina SkillsUSA competition. Joining Rowan-Salisbury Schools students were high school students from Orange, Stanly, Columbus, Montgomery and Cabarrus counties.

The regional event included beginner- and intermediate-level competitions for block-building, cabinet-making, masonry and carpentry.

During Saturday’s event, Rodriguez competed in the masonry competition and the cabinet-making showcase. For the showcase, participants designed and constructed their work off-site. The piece he showcased Saturday was a wooden storage case made of pine that took him about five days to construct. It’s activated by a fingerprint motion sensor, and the top has been painted to depict the American flag. Rodriguez said he sold the case for about $200.

Rodriguez said carpentry is appealing because “you can get a piece of wood and create anything with it.” He and other students have helped their instructor work on back patio projects, for example. For students considering courses for carpentry and masonry, Rodriguez says go for it.

“I just like it because you can build realistically anything,” he said. “I would say do it, go for it. If you don’t like it, find something else. But I think it’s really fun and I think anybody would really enjoy it.” 

Kent Huntley, one of the event’s judges and chairman of the North Carolina Masonry Contractors Association, said companies within the trade industry have worked alongside RSS in the previous decade to highlight trades such as masonry and carpentry as ideal careers following graduation. Huntley said students who begin careers in the masonry industry after learning the trade earn an average of $50,000 in the first few years. He commended them for their passion and interest in trades and for exploring it as a post-graduation option.

“I know it’s cliche to say it, but they all are winners,” Huntley said. “Because they’re being exposed to a trade, and if they come learn this, no one can take that away from them.”

Huntley praised Rowan-Salisbury Schools’ involvement in such programs and said it’s “something that we have to continue to push.”

Some students told the Post they wanted to learn masonry because of family members who work in the industry. Some have been inspired to enter the field upon graduation, such as East Rowan High sophomore Mason Ridenhour.

Ridenhour said he’s worked with his father in the masonry industry during summers and is familiar with the competitions, which also provide an opportunity to meet others. But like all projects, it requires some hours and patience.

“It’s an art but it takes a lot of skill, too,” Ridenhour said.

East Rowan High sophomore Braxton Smith also views the final product of masonry like an art project. Smith said he enjoys it more and more as he gets better at the craft and competitions like the one on Saturday provide more opportunities for growth.

“We all have different ways of laying brick. There are different ways to do it,” Smith said. “Just try your best and go out there and make a good art project out of it.” 

Students said the biggest and most important challenge during the masonry competition is ensuring all bricks are leveled and flush.

Other students say they’re keeping trade careers as options when they graduate, including South Rowan High sophomore Rylie Williams, who said she enjoys being able to look back at how she’s improved and work to strengthen those skills.

Holly Pore, career and technical education director for RSS, said the district has participated in competitive events, but this year is the first time regional schools consolidated for one competition. While it brings friendly competition for students, it also helps address a “huge skills gap” that many older adults in the industry worry about as they retire.

Pore said the CTE program helps bring awareness to students that there are additional pathways for students after graduation.

“Students who want to find another pathway for that post-secondary pursuit, they find it through the workforce. So it provides them with a way to have a livable wage though the learning of a skill that oftentimes pays more than pursuing a four-year degree,” Pore said. “We value education; we encourage our students to continue their education. But there are other ways to do that.”

Pore said about 8,000 high school students are enrolled in the CTE program in RSS, and that amount increases to 11,000 when including middle school students. Pore said outreach initiatives aims to spark interest in such industries as early as fifth grade.

“The passion doesn’t happen right away,” Pore said. “Kids don’t become passionate about something. It starts with an interest, you add some skills, have some success, it builds some confidence and that leads to a passion. And then we hope that passion develops into a career aspiration. It doesn’t always happen that way, but we want to show them, ‘Hey, if you’re passionate about this, man, it could make you money.’” 

RSS students on Saturday swept the board for the regional event, dominating the carpentry and masonry competitions in particular. Most of those winners will advance to the SkillsUSA statewide competition in Greensboro April 27-29. Winning carpentry teams include East Rowan High juniors Andrew Boyd and Connor Yon for first place, West Rowan High senior Rosty Menius and sophomore Charles Menius for second place and South Rowan High seniors Hector Bernal and Romeo Sosa for third place.

The masonry event was separated into Masonry I and Masonry II. In the beginner-level masonry competition, winners included West Rowan High sophomore Corbin Nations for first place, East Rowan High sophomore Mason Ridenhour for second place, West Rowan freshman Dylan Smith for third place, Carson High sophomore Cole Kirkpatrick for fourth place and Carson High freshman Aaron Sanchez for fifth.

For the intermediate-level masonry competition, the first place winner was West Rowan senior Anderson Pruett. While North Stanly High School senior Nathaniel Myers took second place, Carson High senior Aiden Toledo earned third, West Rowan junior Nicholas Sloop earned fourth and West Rowan junior Aaron Russel earned fifth place.

Alongside the masonry event was the block competition, which used concrete cinder blocks rather than bricks. West Rowan High junior O’Connor Leonard placed first, with students from Columbus Career and College and West Stanly High placing in second and third places.

In the core construction event, South Rowan High School senior Caiden Moore and sophomore Carlton Carey placed first and second, respectively, with A. L. Brown High School junior Olivia Vanover placing third.

In the cabinet-making showcase, Jesse C. Carson High School freshman Garett Gregg placed third. Showcase events included pieces designed and constructed before the competition.

About Natalie Anderson

Natalie Anderson covers the city of Salisbury, politics and more for the Salisbury Post. She joined the staff in January 2020 after graduating from Louisiana State University, where she was editor of The Reveille newspaper. Email her at natalie.anderson@salisburypost.com or call her at 704-797-4246.

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